Bélancille Twizerimana’s path to a hotelier was unusual. She is a former teacher and banker who entered the tourism industry through a bakery. Today she runs two guest houses near Volcanoes National Park, a restaurant in Musanze and a campsite on Cyuza Island.
Bélancille was born in Musanze to a very poor family. She was fortunate to study up to secondary level, then taught for 10 years. She finally realised that she didn’t earn enough money nor had enough opportunity to impact the society the way she had always dreamed.
Immediately after the 1994 genocide she started a small restaurant away from her home town, to earn enough money for a business degree at Kigali University. She became a branch manager with Agaseke bank and some microfinance banks.
Bella, most people here dream to be bankers yet you didn’t find it satisfactory. Why?
I wanted to be of help to those who where less privileged. When you are from an impoverished background you have a dream of being wealthy or just better off than your family was. That gives you determination. But when I reached that level I felt I could do more. I particularly mean helping workers so that their families feel the positive impact from the projects that we do.
I would also like to improve the image of Rwanda as a country whose historical background is known as cruel and broken. It is a huge a motivation to tell the world, through the services at my businesses and community projects, that this is a safe and welcoming country.
Your first restaurant gave you a taste of hospitality but how did you actually end up in tourism?
I joined an Italian-Belgian enterprise that taught locals how to bake bread. One of the leaders was Giuseppe Lippolis, an Italian who lived in Belgium. He had a big desire to help young Rwandans, especially street children and the disabled, by creating job opportunities. I saw we had the same dream, so when they invited me in 2008 to work for the enterprise I had to leave the bank job. Giuseppe is my main partner today.
My first La Pailotte project began from the base of Mt Sabinyo, at a place called Mitobo. The local market there was limited and we had to take our produce to Musanze town to sell and purchase what was needed to continue running the project.
This is when I applied what I learned from my business course: we were spending too much capital in Mitobo and establishing a similar project in Musanze made more sense. The first step towards Musanze, however, was Kinigi Town where tourists could support our work; I added accommodation at both locations. Finally, in 2013, I opened a restaurant in the centre of Musanze where people appreciated our fresh pastries.
Recently you reached even further. You just established a campsite on a Burera island?
When we heard that the government was evacuating people from the islands of Lake Burera to help them move closer to essential services like schools, churches and better health care, we thought it would be a great opportunity for us as investors. We bought Cyuza Island with an ambition that we would add to the development of Rwanda.
What is next on your project agenda?
I am not sure about having anything new soon because I believe it is better to first strengthen what you already have. If you invest your energy in diverse projects, you might end up losing all of them.
But the vision that I have is to help others even further. I believe that the hotel, restaurant and hospitality industry is like a hospital; if one of us is healthy, they should help those that aren’t strong yet.
What would you advise a young person who wants to prosper in the tourism sector?
They can study hotel management, be good at house keeping and make sure clients are in a clean environment to ensure their happiness. This is part of the Rwandan ancient culture, the visitor was an important person in the home so everyone was meant to be warm and welcoming to him or her.
They should learn catering management, how to deal with produce suppliers and how to prepare good food. The most important thing, however, is to learn to deal with customers because it is like a mirror, it gets back to you if your clients are happy. They should not disrespect any jobs in this industry because every single step counts.
With your personal experience, do you think it important to study a tourism course?
It is possible that a person can study all about the tourism industry, but practical training is the most important thing to master. Tourism courses can be quite expensive and some students can’t afford them, so many great workers have learned their skills in other ways. Practical experience that also earns some income can be very beneficial.
It is good for young people to study tourism but sadly some of the studied staff perform worse than the ones who were trained on the job. I urge future tourism students to think hard about what they want to gain from this industry before they enrol.
How did this year’s overnight increase of gorilla permit prices affect your businesses?
The customers we are receiving this year still booked at the old price. We expect to see a bigger impact in 2018. However, if the quality of our service delivery increases and we introduce new attractive activities, I believe we will have no major problems. We have an organised, peaceful, secure, clean and beautiful country that is very attractive. Gorillas are not everything we can offer.
interview by Jane Mulungi and Miha Logar
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